Hands-on undergraduate research: COVID-19 can’t stop this!

March 29, 2021

For many undergraduate students considering a future in ocean science, summer research internship programs can be life-changing. These internships expose undergraduates to diverse career paths in oceanography while immersed in an active laboratory. At GSO, the SURFO (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship in Oceanography) program is one of the many such National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs around the country.

SURFO, which emphasizes math, engineering, and data science, has been held every summer since 1985. But as with nearly all aspects of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, this typically in-person and hands-on summer experience had to be creatively reimagined to fit within restrictions imposed by remote learning, social distancing and digital communication. 

During the summer of 2020, GSO’s Pierre Marrec, Lucie Maranda and Susanne Menden-Deuer worked with Jackson State University student Andria Miller for her SURFO experience. In a new paper published in Oceanography, Miller and her team of GSO advisors highlight how she was able to conduct a hands-on research project in Mississippi while collaborating with a team of mentors based in Rhode Island.

The scientific question posed for Miller’s project was whether differences in freshwater plankton communities in three different bodies of water in Mississippi, both over time and location, are due to differences in environmental conditions. Because this was a remote project, there could be little reliance on local research facilities—research vessels, state-of-the-art equipment in URI Bay Campus centers and laboratories—which GSO typically makes available to SURFO students. As a result, Miller was a quick study in the fundamental oceanographic (and life) skills of making do and winging it. 

“In the beginning, I honestly was not sure what to expect from a remote and virtual REU, but I also was not expecting to have such a great mentor like Pierre,” said Miller. “Even though the summer started a bit challenging, it was the inclusiveness and support that made the experience worthwhile.”

The project ended with Miller giving an online presentation to the GSO community and writing a report. Because of the success of her project, Miller has been selected to participate in the ASLO Aquatic Sciences meeting in Palma de Mallorca, Spain—now virtual due to the pandemic but she would have been flown out—in June 2021 to show that hands-on research training can be performed safely during a pandemic with limited and affordable materials. 

The DIY approach allowed Miller to claim ownership of the work accomplished and hone many essential skills, such as budget and time management, creativity, adaptability and communication.